2011 was an incredibly lively year for art in New England. Across the board, the region’s museums seemed to vault ahead in confidence and maturity, displaying new levels of energy and ambition.
Things have been heading in this direction for several years. But suddenly, and thanks largely to new energies funneled into the field of contemporary art, artistic offerings no longer seemed stolid in some departments, threadbare in others.
Instead, art lovers were treated to the full gamut: smart, convincing, and beautiful exhibitions that ranged from ancient art (the Museum of Fine Arts’s unapologetically lust-inducing “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love’’) through Old Masters (the Peabody Essex Museum’s exquisite display of Dutch and Flemish pictures from the van Otterloo collection), Impressionism (“Degas and the Nude’’ at the MFA and “Pissarro’s People’’ at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute), modern (Ellsworth Kelly’s wood sculptures at the MFA, “Edward Hopper’s Maine’’ at Bowdoin College Museum of Art), and contemporary - of which more in a moment.
If you liked art, in other words, you weren’t going to go hungry. And let’s not forget the memorable offerings in the categories of fashion and design (“Cocktail Culture’’ at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design; a new gallery for jewels and gems at the MFA), and illustration (an enthralling Edward Gorey exhibit at the Boston Athenaeum, and R. Crumb’s illustrated book of Genesis at Bowdoin).
In a category all its own - or more accurately, in a concerted attempt at blowing away categories of any kind - was “Tangible Things’’ at Harvard University. This physically small but intellectually overflowing exhibit brought together miscellaneous objects - a giant tapeworm, Thoreau’s pencil, Sargent’s paint-spattered palette - from some of the university’s more than 50 unique collections, inviting viewers to make of them what they would. The results were startling, and a great instance of lateral thinking and institutional risk-taking paying off.
Undoubtedly, though, the big story of the year was the opening of the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA. That event more or less coincided with the Institute of Contemporary Art marking its 75th anniversary with a slew of exhibitions, programs, and parties. It was all good fodder for the argument that contemporary art is flourishing in New England’s museums as never before.
Evidence for that affirmative took the form of noteworthy exhibits not just at those two museums but at institutions all over the region. The best of them were Katharina Grosse’s shriekingly sublime installation of dirt, foam, and spray paint at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams; “The Record,’’ a group show at the ICA; the El Anatsui survey at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College; Annette Lemieux at Worcester Art Museum; a Fluxus revival at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College; Ursula von Rydingsvard’s rough-hewn wood sculptures at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum; “Temporary Structures’’ at that same institution, and a quartet of fascinating shows looking back to the ’70s at the List Visual Arts Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
These last were instances of the region’s academic institutions doing what they do best: bringing scholarship and acumen to bear on artists ripe for reappraisal. In this case there are four pioneers of experimental, multimedia art: Juan Downey, Stan VanDerBeek, Otto Piene, and Hans Haacke. These were, for me, the most revelatory shows of the year.
Both the opening of the Linde Family Wing and the ICA’s birthday celebrations occurred late in the year. For the MFA, it was a chance to keep up the momentum achieved by the opening of its splendid Art of the Americas Wing in late 2010. It was also a strong signal that this hitherto slow-moving and cautious museum is finally committed to the art of our time.
How committed to following through? I, for one, am far from convinced that, with Malcolm Rogers at the helm and an earnest but still untested team steering efforts in the contemporary department, the MFA is genuine about all this. The new wing has much to recommend it, but as the weeks and months go by, it looks increasingly thin.
Will we, over coming years, see a few decent contemporary shows and a few interesting new acquisitions, and that’s about it?
That would be my bet. The MFA shows little sign of using its authority to stake a claim on an artist or an idea that isn’t somehow safe, or of paying much more than lip service to the proposition that the best art of our time might have something profound to say to us.
For that, we will have to rely on the ICA, Mass MoCA, the deCordova, and the various energetically competing college museums. The MFA, in the meantime, will apparently continue to put its best energies into wooing crowds with the likes of Dale Chihuly, Mario Testino, and Alex Katz.
The ICA’s anniversary celebration capped off in high style an otherwise lackluster year. “Dance/Draw,’’ the group show of the year, fizzed with memorable works, a vivid idea, and a strong narrative through-line. Organized by the chief curator Helen Molesworth, it was in no way lightweight, but it was, like the dancers it saluted, light on its feet - a great lesson for curators of group shows, which can so easily become ponderous. The programming around the exhibit was excellent, too, making the ICA the place to be throughout the fall.
Around the same time, the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University came back to life after a dismayingly drawn-out and nerve-racking near-death experience: In 2008, beset by financial woes, the university had threatened to shut it down and sell off its collection.
The Rose reopened, freshly renovated, just in time to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a knockout display of Pop and abstract works acquired by its prescient first director, Sam Hunter, in the 1960s.
Perhaps the most startling story of the year was the announcement by the Peabody Essex Museum in November that it had quietly raised $550 million. The money will be used to fund a massive expansion - when the project is finished in 2016 the museum will be almost as large as the MFA - and to build up its endowment.
Where, you had to wonder, was all this money coming from, and so soon after the MFA raised its own cool half billion? One cheered, of course, for the Peabody Essex, which is one of the oldest and most dynamic museums in the country. A triumph!
But something inside one also felt queasy. What else, in times like these, might that kind of money be used for? And where, oh where, will all this ceaseless expanding and revamping of art museums eventually take us? There seems at this point to be something self-generating about the phenomenon.
Two individuals who have contributed greatly to New England’s museums over many years left their posts this year. George Shackelford, the well-liked and well-respected chair of the MFA’s Art of Europe department, left to become senior deputy director at the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth. He leaves on a high, with the show he organized with the Musée d’Orsay, “Degas and the Nude,’’ pulling in crowds and admiring reviews here before it travels to Paris.
Director Malcolm Rogers has not yet formed a search committee to replace him. He has chosen instead to appoint himself as interim chair of the department.
Meanwhile, Jim Welu, since 1986 the beloved director of Worcester Art Museum, has retired. Born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa, he started as an assistant curator at the museum way back in 1974. He has been replaced by Matthias Waschek, who was director of academic programs at the Louvre and, most recently, director of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis.
SEBASTIAN SMEE’S PICKS
■BEST SHOW “Degas and the Nude,’’ Museum of Fine Arts
■BEST CONTEMPORARY SHOW “Dance/Draw,’’ Institute of Contemporary Art
■BEST OLD MASTERS SHOW “Golden: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks From the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection,’’ Peabody Essex Museum, Salem
■TRIPPIEST SHOW Otto Piene’s “Lichtballet,’’ List Visual Arts Center
■HOTTEST ARTIST HEREABOUTS El Anatsui. The Nigerian artist’s work was displayed everywhere from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College and the Museum of Fine Arts.
■MOST AMBITIOUS SINGLE SHOW Katharina Grosse’s “One Floor Up More Highly,’’ Mass MoCA, North Adams
■BEST PHILOSOPHICAL TICKLE “Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life,’’ Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, N.H.
■BIGGEST CHORUS OF CHEERS FOR “Art at the Origin: The Early Sixties,’’ Rose Art Museum, Waltham
■BIGGEST DISCOVERY Edward Hopper’s early Maine seascapes in “Edward Hopper’s Maine,’’ Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine.
■FAVORITE SINGLE WORK Bruce Conner’s “EVE-RAY-FOREVER,’’ Rose Art Museum, Waltham